I did a reading at McMaster University a few weeks ago, and during the break found myself talking to a student about taking risks in one’s writing. I said that many of the books I admire contain some element of risk for the writer, some aspect that extends the author beyond his or her comfort zone. Every act of literature, I said, should take some sort of risk, even if it’s a small one. For many authors, this usually translates into rendering a difficult part of their identity or autobiography into fiction. But for others, the gambles are larger, more involved. Some authors put a lot more chips on the table in the hopes of a much bigger payoff.
No one can argue that The Golden Mean was not a huge risk for Canadian author Annabel Lyon; she’s clearly swinging for the fence in this book. The novel is set in ancient Greece. It details the relationship between the philosopher Aristotle and his most famous student, the boy who would become Alexander the Great. It is laden with meticulous research. Its narrative intrigue arises from both recorded history and abstract philosophical concepts. And perhaps most riskily of all, the story is told in first-person narration from Aristotle’s point of view. There’s a lot that could have gone wrong with a project of this magnitude. Surprisingly, and delightfully, nothing does. The Golden Mean is an unmitigated success and a masterpiece. Lyon deserves every plaudit she has received – including winning the Writers Trust Fiction Prize and shortlist nods from both the Giller and the GG – for this exquisitely crafted and highly readable novel.
I think there’s some value in examining several of the risks that this book takes. We could start with its setting and the research involved in making it come to life. It’s hard enough to craft a story around ordinary people of a specific time whose lives have no real consequence on the tides of history. Harder still is to inhabit the lives of history’s big players – in this case, Aristotle, Plato, Alexander and Alexander’s father Philip, the king of Macedon – and make it all work at a human level. The key is to integrate, rather than merely graft on, your carefully gathered research into the small, everyday details of your characters’ lives. Make no mistake, Lyon’s readers are fully aware of history’s pull on these characters – talks of invading Persia, actual battles, the jostling for power, the specific time and place in Aristotle’s biography. Yet she captures such perfect, quotidian detail along the way: these characters prepare meals, they have sex, they have dinner parties, they give birth, they squabble over domestic trifles. You never once feel that these people are mere tools of the research. Lyon has made them the living, breathing, messy humans they were.
Then there’s the whole issue of laying a philosophical construct at the heart of your narrative. In this case, it’s Aristotle’s notion of the golden mean between two extremes – a concept he attempts to impart on Alexander time and again as the boy prepares to ascend to the throne. I have no explanation as to how Lyon got this to work; it just does. It’s one of those moments of magic that a serious work of literature can often achieve. Lyon shows incredible control over her need to press this Big Idea onto her story. Too much of it would have rendered the book contrived. Too little, and the reader would have missed it.
Finally, we could talk about the narration. I mean, you have to talk about the narration. Canadian writers are wonderful at a great many things, but I don’t think literary ventriloquism is necessarily one of them. Thankfully, Lyon has set a new standard for Canadian fiction that chooses to adopt a voice that isn’t just a thinly veiled facsimile of the writer’s. I haven’t been this impressed with an author’s ability to write in first person of the opposite gender since Arthur Golden’s feat in Memoirs of a Geisha. In The Golden Mean, Lyon manages to completely let go of her female, 21st-century perspective on the world and embrace Aristotle’s voice and inner life with such force. I mean, she absolutely revels in it. What struck me was how absolutely bang on her grasp of maleness is, of the constantly shifting and unstable plates that is masculinity, and the role that sex and sexual conquest plays in that. She gets it. And it’s no small feat that she gets it.
I hope lots of people read this novel, people who wouldn’t normally take a chance (a risk?) on a book that’s so unapologetically historical. There’s so much more going on in this text; and besides, it’s a damn good story. The Golden Mean could hold its own with any piece of serious World Literature. It’s deserves our attention.